Coffee & Ginger: February Hill

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Good morning! As I type this post, I am sipping on Seattle's Best house blend (one of my favorites) and feeling refreshed after a nice morning jog. Today I am reflecting on the novel I most recently read from 1934 titled "February Hill,” by Victoria Lincoln. You may be wondering what on earth this book has to do with Ginger Rogers. The answer to that is this was the novel that would later become a movie called Primrose Path. Major movie and novel spoilers ahead.

Primrose Path details the personal journey of young Ellie May Adams while the book focuses much more on the entire family. "February Hill" follows the Harris siblings and their parents.  Their character traits are much the same as in the movie, with Pa (Vergil) being a Greek enthusiast whose quality of life deteriorates as a result of his alcoholism, Ma (Minna) clearly depicted as a prostitute but still devoted to her lonely husband, a straightforward, loud mouthed Grandmother, and Amy, the smallest of the family. However, what makes the two mediums so different is how the book adds two extra siblings: Dottie, a young lady who resents her mother's work and is eager to start her life with her new husband, and Joel, the only brother who takes after his father's love for literature and who is passionate about the Bible. The character who most represents Ellie is named Jenny in the book. She is one of the middle children, and although a couple characteristics are reminiscent to Ellie (tying her hair in braids to look younger, stealing) she is very much a different character.

Lincoln does a wonderful job setting the scene. If you've seen Primrose Path, you already have an idea of what the house and the community look like, but the author's description enhances it. Rather than falling in love with a gas station cafe waiter, Jenny quickly becomes charmed by local gypsy Berkley Howard. However, things go south when Jenny introduces him to the family. As the readers, we get our own little window into this event, something that feels almost intrusive in this family's private moment. In fact, this occurs a few times throughout the book. You almost feel like an awkward guest at the house witnessing everything play out.

The book jumps back and forth between Jenny's story and the individual stories of the other members of the family. Sometimes you go through several chapters in a row without learning how the path of another character continues. This is a strategy that, to me, doesn't always work because sometimes you just get tired of waiting to find out what happens, and you're stuck in different stories that you might find less interesting than others. But here, it works.

Berkley is clearly the origin of Joel's character in Primrose Path. The only thing that the two versions have in common is that they are in love with the main character. Berkley is sexist, with comments such as "all women are the same," and resents Jenny's family for the way they are. He does not dislike Jenny for this, as he understands that this is the way she was brought up, but some of his reactions to her seem aggressively out of left field due to how he was raised. In fact, a lot of the characters' reactions to certain situations are difficult to comprehend, but this is what makes the families and the dynamic so unique.

Personally, I found this book to be odd, but enjoyable for the most part. It's hard to keep up with the language sometimes, as everything is typed in their accents, but that is part of the charm. I also really enjoyed Minna's character. Many of the outsiders look down on her and find her line of work disgraceful, but I pitied her the most, especially after Vergil's tragic suicide. You also often find yourself wishing a better outcome for Jenny. She and Berkley were quick to fall in love, and by the end of the book (again, major spoiler), Jenny is pregnant and Berkley has passed away in a boating accident before she has a chance to tell him the great news.

I would absolutely recommend the novel if you are looking to dive deeper into the origin of Primrose Path. It was interesting to read the full story and learn what the creative team grabbed from the original writing. It has a lot more depth than the film, as far as focusing on the other characters. Primrose Path tells Ellie's story beautifully, but it is fulfilling to learn the perspectives of the many other people involved in the story. Victoria Lincoln is a talented author, and I will definitely seek out more of her work in the near future.

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